Last year Independence day was spent climbing Mt Rainier. I would spend the second 4th of July in a row climbing a mountain. The goal today was to climb 17,782 ft Urus Este. This peak is considered easy by Cordillera Blanca standards, but in comparison with the mountains in my resume, it is a big mountain.
WHOMP WHOMP (banging on the side of the tent) “Ok guys lets get moving”. It was our guide Elias and he was way too cheerful for 3AM. The next few minutes were quiet as we squirmed into clothes and out of our sleeping bags. The camp quickly came alive as everyone stuffed final items into their packs and laced up their boots. We ate a quick breakfast and left camp around 4AM. We quietly weaved our way through tents in the valley trying not to awaken sleeping climbers. Once across the valley, the easy introduction was over. The approach trail was a miserable set of switchbacks cutting their way up a ridge-line formed from loose glacial debris. Thankfully a blanket of darkness dampened the senses and dulled the misery. The trail would have been difficult to locate and follow by headlamp. We were fortuitous enough to have an experienced local guide who had made countless assents of Urus and knew the trail well. The only sounds penetrating the still darkness were the scuffing of uncomfortable mountaineering boots and gasps for oxygen.
We took a break about an hour in, and it was clear that many were struggling with the altitude. I was breathing hard, but otherwise felt good. We were now at 15,000 ft. Every step I took from here to the summit would be a new personal altitude record. We took our second break around 6AM (just as the sun came up). From our vantage point at nearly 16,000ft, the views of Ranalpaca were mind blowing. During this break a few of our climbers decided to turn around. Out of the nine who started, we were down to five climbers plus two guides. About thirty minutes after this break we reached a steep rock band that marked the end of the miserable trail. I was excited to go “hands on” and do some scrambling.
The rock scrambling was short, relatively easy, and unexposed (in other words plain fun). After maybe thirty minutes of scrambling we reached the toe of the glacier. This glacier is small and thus does not have any major crevasses. I stepped onto the glacier, slid my ice axe from my pack, and knelt down to awkwardly fix my crampons onto my boots. “Mas Rock!” our local guide Carlos is yelling from lower down. “There is still more rock!” Elias darts up the mountain to investigate, turns around and shrugs. We moved up the first section of glacier and immediately hit more rock. We temporarily stowed the ice axes and get back to rock scrambling. Climbing even easy rock in crampons is not fun. It is much like wearing high heals for the first time. Metal scrapes on rock as it searches for purchase. Thankfully we are soon back on firm glacial neve.
The snow was a great consistency for cramponing. The glacier started with a straight forward 30 degree slope. This doesn’t sound steep but as always it feels steeper than it looks on paper. This is especially true at high altitude where every step requires effort. It had been a while since any of us had moved as a rope team on a glacier. I was the last guy on the rope and it took few minutes of fits and starts for pace to settle out with a nice consistent interval. Climbing moderate grade snow is somewhat monotonous business. You carefully move up a few feet at a time methodically stepping, breathing, moving your axe, checking the rope interval. Despite the high altitude the equatorial sun is strong. When it was out the temperatures were pleasant (bordering on warm). As soon as it ducked behind a cloud things got chilly.
At our glacial pace It took maybe an hour to get to the summit pyramid. Here the climbing got more interesting. It was a mix of 45-50 degree snow and granite slabs. This was the most fun section of the climb.
We reached the summit around 9:30AM. The south side of the small summit had a cornice with a steep drop off of several hundred feet. The views in all directions were stellar. I was very happy to be there and was very excited about breaking my altitude record.
Maybe thirty minutes after we arrived, the second team reached the summit. We lingered for a while more, drinking in the views of tranquil lakes surrounded by dramatic peaks. After a few final shutter clicks, we hoisted our packs to start our down-climb. I led most of the descent. Carefully we made our way off the summit, facing out. For the descent Elias placed a picket near the top of the steepest section. If one of us pitched this would stop the entire team from rocketing down the steep slope. Except for a few tricky sections, the remainder of glacier down-climb was easy and fast.
Once we reached the first rocky section we removed and stowed our crampons. We took a different route down which involved an exciting traverse of 50+ degree snow without crampons. There was already a route put in, and Elias once again took the lead to make sure there were solid steps to follow. After the traverse, we descended a short but steep snowfilled gully.
Soon we were back on rock. The bottom part of the trail was unpleasant loose dirt. The final hour of descending, was an odious one indeed. I was teased by camp which seamed tantalizing close, but seemed to move with each step we took. I had been out of water for a few hours, and the sun was now beating down on us. My mouth ached for a cool drink, and my head pounded from the combination of dehydration and altitude.
Finally, nine hours after setting out, we were back on flat ground. The climbers who were back in basecamp gathered to congratulate us and hear our exaggerated tales of mountain glory.
Saturday (July 5th)
The day following our climb of Urus we got to sleep in. After a leisurely breakfast at 8:30 we spent the morning working on crevasse rescue scenarios around camp. We took turns setting up different pulley systems and working to extract a fall victim. At dinner the guides informed us of a change to the plan. Tomorrow the group would hike to the glacier on Ischinca and stash some gear. This would give some of those who had altitude illness a chance to aclimitze before going for the summit of Ischinca.
Sunday (July 6th)
Saturday night I had fitful sleep. I awoke breathless several times during the night. I got up to pee twice and the second time I felt very nauseated. I got up with everyone else at 5AM and got my gear ready for the hike. My stomach royaled as I tried to choke down bread and jam for breakfast, and I couldn’t finish a single cup of coffee. I took my morning trip to our unpleasant pit toilet and it was clear that I was not well. Elias and I briefly discussed whether I should hike to cache gear, and decided it was best for me to stay in camp and rest for a summit push on Monday. I returned to my tent washed down an antibiotic and Imodium, and tried to get some more rest. I spent the day hanging around camp conversing with the two cooks.
Overall it was nice to have a calm restful day. We retired early to prepare for tomorrows attempt at Ishinca.
This blog post has been broken into 3 sections due to length. You can expect an update in the next week with a report of Ischinca and Tocllaraju